Serge Ibaka returns from ‘postseason-ending’ injury and transforms Thunder-Spurs series

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The Oklahoma Thunder were running out the clock in their Game 3 win over the Spurs, and Serge Ibaka was still on the court. Considering his injury, it appeared long past the time he should have been removed. Eventually, Kevin Durant left his seat on the bench and approached Scott Brooks.

“Get Serge,” Durant appeared to say.

Less than a minute later, Ibaka was pointing to the sky and walking to the bench as the Oklahoma City fans showered him with a standing ovation.

You can understand Brooks playing Ibaka too long. Thunder rolled the dice on Ibaka once already tonight, and the results were spectacular.

Playing for the first time since Oklahoma City ruled him out for the rest of the playoffs, Ibaka scored 15 points on 6-of-7 shooting, grabbed seven rebounds and blocked four shots. The Thunder outscored San Antonio by 11 during his 30 minutes in their nine-point win.

“I try to do my best I can to be everywhere,” Ibaka said.

He sure did.

Showing only occasional effects of his strained calf, Ibaka proved crucial on both ends of the floor.

From the game’s very first possession, when he used his long arms and quickness to close successfully on a Tony Parker mid-range jumper, Ibaka disrupted San Antonio’s previously surging offense.

The Spurs have shot 64 percent in the paint with Ibaka off the court this series and 46 percent with him on it. They’ve also taken just 44 percent, as opposed to 53 percent, of their shots in that high-efficiency area against Ibaka.

Indirectly, Ibaka made a much wider defensive impact. The Thunder stuck closer to San Antonio all over the court, likely in part because they knew Ibaka was protecting the paint in case they got beat.

Offensively, Ibaka’s mid-range jumpers proved a critical tertiary option. He needed fewer than 12 minutes of playing time to outscore Oklahoma City’s non-Kevin Durant/Russell Westbrook starters in Games 1 and 2 combined.

Other elements also changed from Games 1 and 2 – the series moved to Oklahoma City, and Reggie Jackson started – but Ibaka played the most-influential game of the 2014 playoffs so far. Considering the stakes and his injury, this could go down a legendary performance in Thunder history. Oklahoma City’s offensive rating (92.6 to 125.7) and defensive rating (116.8 to 98.7) turned around dramatically with Ibaka on the court from off it.

But Ibaka’s big night will be viewed as historic only if the Thunder win this series. They’re still down 2-1, and they need their ailing X-Factor to produce like this again in Game 4 Tuesday. That’s a short turnaround in the playoffs, and the emotional high Ibaka felt tonight will be reduced.

Ibaka changes this entire series. He doesn’t mean the Thunder will win it.

But he means they could.

Russell Westbrook threw it down all over Michael Kidd-Gilchrist

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A rough night for the Thunder will not stop the Russell Westbrook highlights.

The Thunder had another poor game and fell to a Hornets. Westbrook tried to push the team back, but the Thunder defense that has kept them in games all season was not good enough against Charlotte, and the OKC offense was once again up and down.

Westbrook had 30 points on 22 shots on the night, and none of them were as impressive as this transition throwdown on Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

Jahlil Okafor excited about fresh start with Nets

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NEW YORK (AP) — Jahlil Okafor finally got the fresh start he wanted.

Okafor was the consensus No. 1 high school player in his class, won a national championship at Duke, and averaged 17.5 points and seven rebounds in his rookie campaign for the Philadelphia 76ers.

Then things changed drastically.

Okafor struggled with injuries and a logjam at his position in his second season.

“When I first got drafted there, we already had Nerlens (Noel) there, Joel (Embiid) was there, so we’re trying to have three starting centers on the same team,” Okafor said Monday at his introductory news conference with his new team, the Brooklyn Nets.

“It just never really was the right fit.”

The 76ers traded Okafor along with seldom-used guard Nik Stauskas and two draft picks to the Nets on Thursday. Philadelphia got forward Trevor Booker from Brooklyn.

Okafor also had off-court problems during his time in Philadelphia. He got a speeding ticket for driving 108 miles per hour and was suspended by the 76ers for two games after in an altercation outside of a Boston nightclub with a heckler.

“Speeding obviously is illegal,” Okafor said. “I know that’s not what you’re supposed to do. I guess you just learn how the page can turn on you and how everything can flip. I can’t really say I learned anything, because you know going in that’s not right. You just learn from your mistakes, but (it was) a tough thing that I went through, I got past, and I’m looking to better times now.”

Okafor, the third overall pick in the 2015 draft, joins D'Angelo Russell, the second overall pick in the same draft class, on the Nets.

“We’re just very excited to get on the court together,” Okafor said. “You never would’ve thought the number two and number three picks would be playing on the same team a few years after, but like I said, everything happens for a reason and I’m really excited.”

Russell also had problems on and off the court with the team that drafted him. He was criticized for recording a video of former Lakers teammate Nick Young that aired sordid details about Young’s private life. The Lakers gave up on Russell and drafted Lonzo Ball as his replacement.

“I feel like we’re similar in that we have a lot to prove,” Okafor said. “I know he’s working his (butt) off as well. Right now he’s rehabbing, trying to get back on the court. I think we both have a chip on our shoulder and we have a lot to prove. We’re definitely similar in that regard.”

Okafor understands he has areas to improve, mainly defense and rebounding.

“I’m not a perfect player,” Okafor said. “I’m 21. There are things that I need to work on, that I have worked on and that I’ll continue to work on.”

He’s excited about fulfilling his potential with a new team.

“I feel really motivated right now, but I’ve always been motivated,” Okafor said. “This is the first time where people are against me in a sense because I’ve always been the hyped-up guy. It’s something new for me to experience, so I’m glad that I am experiencing it.”

 

Report: Celtics’ Marcus Morris to miss “extended time” to let knee heal

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Marcus Morris missed the Celtics’ first eight games of the season in an effort to get healthy. Upon his return he’s been solid, first as a starter, then coming off the bench, but his left knee continued to be an issue.

Morris was out Sunday when the Celtics beat the Pistons, and he’s going to miss more time trying to get a troublesome left knee right, reports Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

How much time is “extended time?” Probably at least a couple of weeks.

Morris has averaged 12.1 points and 5.5 rebounds a game this season, with a true shooting percentage of 52.5, which is right around the league average.

This could mean more run for rookie forwards Semi Ojeleye and Daniel Theis, both of whom have played well in limited minutes.

Tristan Thompson expected to return to Cavaliers Tuesday, come off bench

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INDEPENDENCE, Ohio (AP) — Cleveland Cavaliers center Tristan Thompson could play for the first time since Nov. 1 on Tuesday against Atlanta.

Thompson has been sidelined with a strained left calf. The team initially said Thompson would be out for up to four weeks, but he said Monday that timeline was inaccurate and that his injury was more serious. Thompson did not divulge any other details about the injury.

Coach Tyronn Lue says Thompson will not start when he returns, meaning Kevin Love will remain at center. Thompson says he’s fine with a reserve role and made it clear he’s willing to do whatever Lue needs.

The Cavaliers have won 14 of 15 and their defense has improved dramatically over the past month.

Thompson says he’ll have the same mindset on the floor as always and “just be myself. Being myself has worked out pretty well for me.”